Following up on his earlier post about the American Legion (which I also wrote about here last week) Rick Perlstein reminds us all that the dirty hippies weren't the only ones who treated the Vietnam Vets like dirt. Indeed, the American Legion was among the worst offenders:
They were the kind of veterans who - Gerald Nicosia tells the story in his history of Vietnam Veterans Against the War - greeted the antiwar veterans who had marched 86 miles from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just like George Washington's army in 1877. The World War II veterans heckled them:
"Why don't you go to Hanoi?"
"We won our war, they didn't, and from the looks of them, they couldn't."
A Vietnam vets hobbled by on crutches. One of the old men wondered whether he had been "shot with marijuana or shot in battle."
I forgot, too, about their political interference in a prominent trial. The Legion post in Columbus, Georgia, home of Lt. William Calley's Fort Benning jail cell, promised they would raise $100,000 to help fund the appeal of the man convicted of murder in the My Lai Massacre "or die trying": "The real murderers are the demonstrators in Washington," they said, "who disrupt traffic, tear up public property, who deface the American flag. Lieut. Calley is a hero..... We should elevate him to saint rather than jail him like a common criminal."
One thing I would take issue with about this (sorry Rick) is the idea that these were "old men." Most of them were in their 40's and early 50's, and in our culture of the time they were supposed to be the masters of the universe -- the Husbands and the Dads who fought the Big One and came home to take back their role as the Big Boss, at least in their own lives. They had sacrificed much and here they were, at the height of their power, watching the edifices of a whole lot of heritable prerogatives falling down around them. Many of them were very, very pissed.
And you have to be a little bit sympathetic. Their youths were spent fighting a truly vicious, if righteous, war. They saw things. As a result, despite their recent Disneyfied canonization at the hands of the Monsignor and Tom Brokaw, they were not the healthiest individuals in the world: they were extremely complicated people. And they certainly weren't innocent or silent.
I remember hearing in my own home that Calley was a hero, which was the kind of thing you heard all the time coming from some Greatest Generation guys. The gay-baiting was also entirely common, as was the assumption that Vietnam vets were all cowards. These particular WWII vets were not a monolith, of course, and there were many who were able to see the moral ambiguity of the situation and who granted respect to those who served in Vietnam (and even some of the college kids and draftees who were sincerely trying to end the war --- and change the world.) But don't kid yourself. There were tens of thousands of WWII vets who were just this side of fascist and who considered anyone who didn't follow their government with a crisp salute and click of the heels to be a commie or a "fag" or both. They were a common and dominating feature of living through the 1960's and 70's.
As someone who grew up listening to vile characterizations of vets from other vets, and who witnessed first hand the macho denigration of anyone who failed to toe the line, I can't help but be stunned to see how the history of the era has been rewritten to reflect that it was solely the unruly college kids who destroyed the Democrats. Talk about blaming the victims --- there was an amazing amount of blind malevolence and sheer hatred that emanated from the vaunted silent majority during those times. They had plenty to say and they said it --- as loudly and obnoxiously as the hippies ever did. The 60's were a two way street.
(Perhaps if the Monsignor weren't making millions writing Hallmark Cards and patting himself on the back, he might be interested in writing about what these people really thought about the amazing times in which they lived --- with all the self actualization and loss of pretension that only very old age can sometimes bring. Ask Jimmy Carter...)